A plant of many names

Friday 4th January 2013

At this time of year tucked away among the leaf litter and under the hedges, lies the little shoots of a plant that goes by a multitude of names including; goose grass, sticky weed, sticky-willy, mutton chops, pony-tails, monkey-tails, clivers or most commonly cleavers Gallium aparine.  It is familiar to just about everyone for it’s “sticky” properties caused by tiny downward pointing hairs which gives rise to some of its names. The whorls of leaves around the stem and its clambering growth make it easily recognisable.


Young Cleavers Gallium aparine

You will find it throughout the winter even during cold spells, in fact the young shoots of this annual plant start to appear at the end of summer. By the end of March it will start to grow vigorously forming thick masses by mid summer, by which time it will produce its round, sticky seeds before dying off.
It can be used in dishes in several ways. The really young shoots that are around now can be used raw in salads, or used to make pesto (for recipe click here), once they start to get noticeably “sticky”, simply blanch briefly in boiling water to effectively remove the hairs. Raw or briefly cooked, they have a pleasant pea like flavour. Older plants can be cooked in soups and stews but they become rather tasteless. By late spring they start to get tough and stringy and take on a bitter flavour, but I have found that you can still use the juice from them. Either put them in a juicer or chop them and squeeze the juice out. It’s great for deglazing pans after cooking meat and making a simple but fresh flavoured sauce or mix it with lemon juice, garlic, onion, chilli and red pepper in a blender to make a version of chimichanga……fantastic with any grilled or fried meat, particularly pigeon.

The juice of cleavers has been used in herbal medicine for a range of disorders from tonsillitis to urinary tract infections taken just as it is, and it is also an effective cure for nettle stings, being far more effective than dock leaves and almost as good as plantain. Mixed with lanolin the juice also makes a good lip balm or treatment for chapped skin.

Again to help you know where to search, look for the tangled pale brown, grass-like strands of last years plants along hedgerows and fencelines.  If you need to light a fire this dead stuff makes a great tinder. On a rain free, breezy day like today it should be bone dry.

Dry, dead cleavers……look underneath for the fresh growth

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